January 30, 2021

Returning to Work as a Dentist during the Pandemic

Dr. Shahira Saad shares her experience returning to work, some advice, and her predictions for the future of dentistry.

Cate Perino

Whether you’re a dentist, dental hygienist, or even a patient with a toothache that won’t fix itself, you may be wondering what it’s like to step foot in the dental office again. 

Dr. Shahira Saad was kind enough to pay a visit to our Whippy office (a.k.a our Zoom chat room) to give us some insight into returning to work as a dentist. She explains everything from what it’s really like to work a full day in PPE, to the surprising effect that quarantine may be having on your oral health.  

Meet Dr. Shahira Saad

Dr. Shahira Saad is a DDS who completed her residency at UCLA in 2019. She was working as an associate dentist in Los Angeles when the world was first put on hold in mid-March due to COVID-19. 

Since the end of May she has returned to work, but as you can imagine, much has changed. 

How has COVID-19 affected your work schedule? 

Dr. Saad explained how it is common for associate dentists to work limited hours with multiple dentists. She was working with two partner dentists before offices were limited to emergency procedures. Since returning to work, it seems as though their schedules are more of a puzzle than ever. At one point, she had to piece together her schedule with more limited part time hours for more dentists. 

Demand is inconsistent as some dentists are desperate for employees to return to work, and some cannot support their staff as they did before due to financial reasons or a lack of patients. Temporary hires and part time work may be more common for dental offices that are trying to keep up with the unpredictable trends. She sees Whippy helping to give some security and control to these professionals and facilities (small pat on the back here).

What has changed at work?

When I asked Dr. Saad what had changed in the office, she pulled out her hands to help her count the ways. In summary: a lot. 

First of all, the new lobby occupancy is one. Patients wait in their cars and are texted when it’s time to come in. They are also asked to wash their hands, rinse their mouths with a solution to limit bacteria, and get their temperature taken. She also mentioned that each room has an air filter, and procedures involving aerosol that increase the risk of contamination, such as polishing, are limited. 

PPE: Friend or foe?

The most visible change is probably the staff in the office that look more like beekeepers than your normal welcoming dentists. Dr. Saad said her new gear includes an N95 mask, face shield, hair net, gloves, and full gown. 

I asked her how it is to work in the PPE and she smiled like someone would smile when you ask them about their pesky mother in law. She loves it, of course, because it keeps her patients safe and comfortable. 

But, would life be easier without it? Yes. 

For any dental staff who wants to hear the truth, here it is. PPE is bulky and can make it difficult to breathe. You will probably get hot and sweaty, and you can’t just slip it off for a break. Dr. Saad pointed out that dentistry is a detailed and focused job, and working in PPE is like learning to do dentistry again. 

So if you’re a dental hygienist reading this out of curiosity, now you know what to expect. If you’re a patient, now you know how much appreciation and respect the medical professionals who are making these sacrifices everyday deserve. 

How have patients reacted to the new changes?

Dr. Saad perked up to tell me how proud she was of her patients and how receptive they have all been. She said that she has been pleasantly surprised at how understanding patients have been with longer wait times and the new procedures. Whether they are highly concerned with contamination or not, they have all seemed to appreciate the extra steps her offices have taken to keep them safe. 

In regards to office traffic, she said there has been a mix of responses. Dr. Saad did notice trends in the two locations she is currently working at though. In the North Hollywood office, she has noticed that there are now more patients per day and they seem to be less concerned with exposure. These patients seem eager to continue with their cleanings and fix any issues that have been postponed due to office closures. She noticed a different trend in the Woodland Hills office. Patients here seem to be slower to reschedule their appointments and this office has remained less busy. 

Whether it is economic status, health concerns, or priorities in general that are the main deciding factor, many have tried to predict how patients would respond to the changes in dentistry, but much is still a mystery. 

What are your predictions for how the dental industry will be affected in the long term?

Even though dentist offices have been opening up, the future of dentistry is still being decided. 

Dr. Saad predicts that since many private practices are owned by baby boomers, COVID-19 may encourage many of those dentists to sell their practices and retire earlier than expected. Making all those changes that Dr. Saad counted on her fingers in the short term and long term is and will continue to be very costly. It makes sense that the investment and health risk may not be worth it for private practice owners nearing retirement. 

This will mean a shift in the general age of dentists, and perhaps a new era of dentistry between the necessary office changes and the consequential ownership changes. 

What is your main concern returning to work?

In the true spirit of a dentist who loves her job and cares for her patients, Dr. Saad said that her biggest concern is for dentistry to return to normal. She wants her patients to feel comfortable and have their needs met. 

Dr. Saad also pointed out that patients may have more dental needs than they did before quarantine. You may be wondering what watching Netflix and sleeping in has to do with your dental health, but Dr. Saad shared how it is well known in dentistry that mental health is highly correlated with oral health. 

Due to life in quarantine, many have faced issues such as anxiety and depression. Behaviors that may have increased such as drinking and smoking are also correlated to poor dental hygiene. When you don’t feel like getting out of bed, you are less likely to brush your teeth and prioritize your dental hygiene. She said that it is unfortunately easy to predict an increase in gum disease and cavities as patients emerge from quarantine. 

Do you have any advice for dental staff who are considered returning to work?

Dr. Saad also gave some first hand advice for dental staff returning to work. She recommended that you value your safety. Evaluate your workspace and make sure your office has the necessary procedures in place to make you feel safe and comfortable. Also, ensure that your team is proactive and stays informed and educated. She said to remember that your health is a priority, just like your patient’s health is a priority. 

Dr. Saad believes that Whippy will be a great help to dental facilities and professionals during this unpredictable time. She appreciates the freedom it will provide both sides, and the emphasis on finding qualified, reliable hires. 

Dr. Shahira Saad shared some great insight into her life as a dentist returning to work. Sharing information and advice is one way we can work together to make this time easier for us all. 

Thank you, Dr. Saad! We hope your days are soon to be filled with smiling patients and breathable scrubs once again. 

You can follow Dr. Saad on instagram (@drshahirasaad) to stay updated on her career and life as a dentist!

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